Andre Watts, Gilbert Varga join Symphony for compelling night of contrasts at Helzberg Hall

04/13/2014 7:24 PM

04/13/2014 7:24 PM

The Kansas City Symphony gave a solid performance Friday night in Helzberg Hall, led by guest conductor Gilbert Varga and joined by pianist André Watts.

Varga directed the orchestra with full-bodied expressiveness and sympathetic gestures.

The overture to Joseph Haydn’s “L’incontro improvviso” opened the program. A stately introduction made way for a spirited melody tinged with militaristic brass and impressively precise cymbal work, referencing the Turkish influence in vogue at the time.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 was the last piece Beethoven premiered himself. His rage and futility at his increasing deafness was hinted at in this piece, which included the hallmarks of his style: fiendish runs, elaborated motifs and an overarching tenacity.

Watts’ assured performance displayed both action and repose, with a warm tone in the carefully placed opening statement and emphatic gestures at the ends of dramatic, difficult runs. Ringing trills and clear yet understated grace notes, all nimbly executed, created a sense of urgency, especially during the cadenzas.

The work began with the piano briefly, almost modestly, stating the introductory theme, and the strings’ quiet reply, the theme’s energy mushrooming with each reiteration. The orchestra was responsive to Varga and Watts, engaged in a series of contrasting segments.

The robust string opening of the second movement was met by a pensive strain in piano, whereas the third movement featured the piano bursting forth from a subdued orchestral moment, even seeming, at times, to present statements as challenges to be met.

Similar to Beethoven’s work, César Franck’s Symphony in D Minor was established on a handful of thematic statements.

There was a quality to the piece that brought to mind the changeable nature of the wind, from subtle breezes to gale-force energy, with a wafting sort of motion to the theme as it moved from voice to voice, culminating in a resplendent melody at the top of the phrase, as though sunlight were breaking through clouds.

It began quietly, too, though the low strings were compelling rather than demure, pushing the crescendos as the motif traveled through the ensemble, each peak stamped by brass-driven chords.

The harp lead the pizzicato for the second movement, the English horn gorgeously introducing the melody, supported by violas and pleasant, chorale-like moments from the winds.

A bright, feisty final movement gusted excitingly, as the theme grew and decayed for a delayed release, strings and brass heralding a triumphant close.

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